Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
October 10, 2014
Abbey, Mysticism, and Oppenheimer
Abbey showed us his rather unique ideals and beliefs throughout Desert Solitaire. His innate love of the environment showed us his apparent mystic outlook and draws us to question if this is truly his demeanor. A mystic is one who is absorbed with something almost foreign to the majority. It is a devotion that may be comparable to that of a religion. Abbey’s clear devotion to the wilderness is made exceptionally clear to us in his chapters. At times he even addresses other religions almost mockingly. I believe that Abbey is his own form of a mystic in the way he views the world and his life, as well as others’. I also compared Abbey to another person looked at by some as a mystic, Robert Oppenheimer. This comparison lead me to not only look deeper into the words of Abbey, but also into history.
Simple aspects of Abbey’s character in the first few chapters began to pave the way for the questioning of his beliefs. One such moment occurs when he discusses the disadvantages of the flashlight, “like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him” (Abbey 13). He appreciates the isolated feeling like most people would not. He has a certain uncommon understanding of the functionality of nature with which he is more adapted to than the average person. Being closer and more at one with his surroundings is almost a form of peace. A unity with nature. If you wanted to read more into this then you may say that walking in the desert at night requires trust of your surrounds. One wrong step and you may be bitten or fall in the difficult terrain.
When Abbey turns the generator on for the trailer, he says he feels “shut off from the natural world and sealed up, encapsulated” (Abbey 13). Eventually, as the weather becomes more permitting, he moves outside the trailer. Abbey uses every chance he has to be outdoors and spend time with the environment showing his commitment. He still uses some forms of technology and acknowledges this. He sees value in automobiles despite his resentment for them in National Parks and is thankful for refrigeration to preserve food. Abbey does not exaggerate his beliefs but simply has a reasonable line drawn on where he stands.
In the chapter “The Moon-Eyed Horse” we are told the story of Moon-Eye, a free-spirited horse living in the desert. He embodies the life Abbey wants for himself to the point where he is virtually envious of the horse. He speaks to the horse in an angry tone, showing his frustration as he tries to wrangle him to have for himself. To physically own a lifestyle he struggles to possess. Moon-Eye lives at on in the world which, to him, will always be as it is; the pristine, unspoiled desert. He doesn’t know about the destructive plans the government has for his desert or other wilderness locations, nor does he know the laziness of modern society that causes industrial tourism. If Abbey cannot fix these things, he might as well wish to escape them all together. Better yet, he could be oblivious to these atrocities as Moon-Eye is and live his life in peace. To be at one with the world he loves.
Wouldn’t a mystic behave similarly? By telling us the story of Moon-Eye, Abbey is showing us how much he yearns to be with the wilderness. To be fully absorbed in this natural state as a mystic would be. This idea of Abbey’s is not one that most members of society would grasp however, much of this book brings almost completely foreign ideas the readers. Most people would not want to separate themselves from society. In fact, most spend the entirety of their lives trying to fit in with societal norms which do not include running off and living in the desert. Most of society pushes towards its idea of progress to make life easier. To Abbey, most forms of this progress is just pure laziness. Why drive through a national park to take home some pictures when you can walk through it and take home a greater experience. “Industrial Tourism” is a phrase to be scoffed at for Abbey.
Abbey’s final words to us echo the fear that has been the basis of this book. “When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return,” (269). It can be debated as to why Abbey questions if he will return. It could be possible that Abbey would not want to come back to see any further changes take place in the land he loves. It would be corrupted and soiled to him. It is more valuable to him in his memory as the unaltered land that he adored.
Perhaps Abbey answers this question in a previous excerpt in “Down the River.” it appeared to me that Abbey almost directly addressed the idea of mysticism when he said,
If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams (Abbey, 177).
I believe this statement could be a foreshadowing of the ending of Desert Solitaire by his mention of “loss of the ancient dreams.” Abbey was OK with leaving Arches and possibly never coming back because his time there consoled him. He was aware that things were changing in the wilderness politically and he would not be able to stop this change himself and he couldn’t stay there forever (especially with said changes). Therefore, he spent his season there, enjoying the time he had and parted with the memory of a fairly untainted Arches.
It was once mentioned in class that Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the atomic bomb, was viewed by some as a mystic. I was intrigued by this because his invention was the cause of the uranium mining taking place in Desert Solitaire. Also, I was curious to see how the creator of the atomic bomb, which caused so much death and destruction, could have been a mystic. To me, a mystic is not someone who develops a weapon of mass destruction, but instead someone who aims more for serenity.
I took to reading a biography by Charles Thorpe titled Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect. Early on in my readings I made a connection between Abbey and Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was unhappy with his position in the world. A quote from one of the opening chapters stated, “Oppenheimer was Jewish, but he wished he weren’t and tried to pretend that he wasn’t,” (Thorpe, 26). Abbey often disassociated himself from the rest of mankind. His opposing viewpoints set him aside from the rest of the populace much as Oppenheimer set himself aside socially.
I noted that Abbey’s only friendly acquaintances are the ones who he shares particular interests with. He only mentions Newcomb during his trip down the river. In “Cowboys and Indians,” He is only with the men for extra work and because he tolerates their company. While Robert Oppenheimer was in Harvard, many people noted his reserved personality. It was stated that “Oppenheimer was disengaged from collective undergraduate activities; his friendships were wholly on an intellectual basis, (Thorpe, 31).
In a last similarity, I noted Abbey and Oppenheimer’s love of the outdoors. On page 201 Thorpe stated “…Oppenheimer took with alacrity to New Mexico’s hardy outdoor life…He and Hogan would travel on horseback over trails across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and stay at the guest ranch of Katherine Chaves Page, a place Oppenheimer found magical.”
Abbey’s unmoving adoration for the desert and other outfits of the wilderness is one of almost religious proportions. It is the foundation of Desert Solitaire. He yearns to be at one with the wilderness as Moon-Eye, to be fully absorbed in the world he loves. Abbey’s visions for the National Parks and outdoors is one with such passion that it has opened the eyes of countless readers and fellow advocates.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Touchstone, 1990.
Thorpe, Charles. Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect. University of Chicago Press, 2006.